Why the equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism must be rejected

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The definition adopted by the current UK government offers 11 examples of anti-Semitism, seven of which involve criticism of Israel.

Source: London Review of Books. Professor Neve Gordon is professor of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

Not long after the eruption of the Second Intifada in September 2000, I became active in a Jewish-Palestinian political movement called Ta’ayush, which conducts non-violent direct action against Israel’s military siege of the West Bank and Gaza. Its objective isn’t merely to protest against Israel’s violation of human rights but to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for self-determination. For a number of years, I spent most weekends with Ta’ayush in the West Bank; during the week I would write about our activities for the local and international press. My pieces caught the eye of a professor from Haifa University, who wrote a series of articles accusing me first of being a traitor and a supporter of terrorism, then later a ‘Judenrat wannabe’ and an anti-Semite. The charges began to circulate on right-wing websites; I received death threats and scores of hate messages by email; administrators at my university received letters, some from big donors, demanding that I be fired.

I mention this personal experience because although people within Israel and abroad have expressed concern for my wellbeing and offered their support, my feeling is that in their genuine alarm about my safety, they have missed something very important about the charge of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ and whom, ultimately, its target is.

The ‘new anti-Semitism’, we are told, takes the form of criticism of Zionism and of the actions and policies of Israel, and is often manifested in campaigns holding the Israeli government accountable to international law, a recent instance being the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In this it is different from ‘traditional’ anti-Semitism, understood as hatred of Jews per se, the idea that Jews are naturally inferior, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy or in the Jewish control of capitalism etc. The ‘new anti-Semitism’ also differs from the traditional form in the political affinities of its alleged culprits: where we are used to thinking that anti-Semites come from the political right, the new anti-Semites are, in the eyes of the accusers, primarily on the political left.

The logic of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ can be formulated as a syllogism: i) anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews; ii) to be Jewish is to be Zionist; iii) therefore anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic. The error has to do with the second proposition. The claims that Zionism is identical to Jewishness, or that a seamless equation can be made between the State of Israel and the Jewish people, are false. Many Jews are not Zionists. And Zionism has numerous traits that are in no way embedded in or characteristic of Jewishness, but rather emerged from nationalist and settler colonial ideologies over the last three hundred years. Criticism of Zionism or of Israel is not necessarily the product of an animus towards Jews; conversely, hatred of Jews does not necessarily entail anti-Zionism.

Not only that, but it is possible to be both a Zionist and an anti-Semite. Evidence of this is supplied by the statements of white supremacists in the US and extreme right-wing politicians across Europe. Richard Spencer, a leading figure in the American alt-right, has no trouble characterising himself as a ‘white Zionist’ (‘As an Israeli citizen,’ he explained to his interviewer on Israel’s Channel 2 News, ‘who has a sense of nationhood and peoplehood, and the history and experience of the Jewish people, you should respect someone like me, who has analogous feelings about whites … I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves. Just like you want a secure homeland in Israel’), while also believing that ‘Jews are vastly over-represented in what you could call “the establishment”.’ Gianfranco Fini of the Italian National Alliance and Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, have also professed their admiration of Zionism and the ‘white’ ethnocracy of the state of Israel, while on other occasions making their anti-Semitic views plain. Three things that draw these anti-Semites towards Israel are, first, the state’s ethnocratic character; second, an Islamophobia they assume Israel shares with them; and, third, Israel’s unapologetically harsh policies towards black migrants from Africa (in the latest of a series of measures designed to coerce Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to leave Israel, rules were introduced earlier this year requiring asylum seekers to deposit 20 per cent of their earnings in a fund, to be repaid to them only if, and when, they leave the country).

If Zionism and anti-Semitism can coincide, then – according to the law of contradiction – anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not reducible one to the other. Of course it’s true that in certain instances anti-Zionism can and does overlap with anti-Semitism, but this in itself doesn’t tell us much, since a variety of views and ideologies can coincide with anti-Semitism. You can be a capitalist, or a socialist or a libertarian, and still be an anti-Semite, but the fact that anti-Semitism can be aligned with such diverse ideologies as well as with anti-Zionism tells us practically nothing about it or them. Yet, despite the clear distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, several governments, as well as think tanks and non-governmental organisations, now insist on the notion that anti-Zionism is necessarily a form of anti-Semitism. The definition adopted by the current UK government offers 11 examples of anti-Semitism, seven of which involve criticism of Israel – a concrete manifestation of the way in which the new understanding of anti-Semitism has become the accepted view. Any reproach directed towards the state of Israel now assumes the taint of anti-Semitism.

One idiosyncratic but telling instance of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ took place in 2005 during Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. When soldiers came to evacuate the eight thousand Jewish settlers who lived in the region, some of the settlers protested by wearing yellow stars and insisting they would not ‘go like sheep to the slaughter’. Shaul Magid, the chair of Jewish Studies at Indiana University, points out that by doing so, the settlers cast the Israeli government and the Israeli military as anti-Semitic. In their eyes, the government and soldiers deserved to be called anti-Semites not because they hate Jews, but because they were implementing an anti-Zionist policy, undermining the project of settling the so-called greater Israel. This representation of decolonialisation as anti-Semitic is the key to a proper understanding of what is at stake when people are accused of the ‘new anti-Semitism’. When the professor from Haifa University branded me an anti-Semite, I wasn’t his real target. People like me are attacked on a regular basis, but we are considered human shields by the ‘new anti-Semitism’ machine. Its real target is the Palestinians.

There is an irony here. Historically, the fight against anti-Semitism has sought to advance the equal rights and emancipation of Jews. Those who denounce the ‘new anti-Semitism’ seek to legitimate the discrimination against and subjugation of Palestinians. In the first case, someone who wishes to oppress, dominate and exterminate Jews is branded an anti-Semite; in the second, someone who wishes to take part in the struggle for liberation from colonial rule is branded an anti-Semite. In this way, Judith Butler has observed, ‘a passion for justice’ is ‘renamed as anti-Semitism’.​*

The Israeli government needs the ‘new anti-Semitism’ to justify its actions and to protect it from international and domestic condemnation. Anti-Semitism is effectively weaponised, not only to stifle speech – ‘It does not matter if the accusation is true,’ Butler writes; its purpose is ‘to cause pain, to produce shame, and to reduce the accused to silence’ – but also to suppress a politics of liberation. The non-violent BDS campaign against Israel’s colonial project and rights abuses is labelled anti-Semitic not because the proponents of BDS hate Jews, but because it denounces the subjugation of the Palestinian people. This highlights a further disturbing aspect of the ‘new anti-Semitism’. Conventionally, to call someone ‘anti-Semitic’ is to expose and condemn their racism; in the new case, the charge ‘anti-Semite’ is used to defend racism, and to sustain a regime that implements racist policies.

The question today is how to preserve a notion of anti-anti-Semitism that rejects the hatred of Jews, but does not promote injustice and dispossession in Palestinian territories or anywhere else. There is a way out of the quandary. We can oppose two injustices at once. We can condemn hate speech and crimes against Jews, like the ones witnessed recently in the US, or the anti-Semitism of far-right European political parties, at the same time as we denounce Israel’s colonial project and support Palestinians in their struggle for self-determination. But in order to carry out these tasks concurrently, the equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism must first be rejected.

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